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Reviewed by:
  • East African Writing in English
  • Derek Wright
Angela Smith. East African Writing in English. London: Macmillan, 1989. 148 pp. No Price Given.

Angela Smith's selective study of significant anglophone East African writers is a lucid and knowledgeable introductory work which will be of value to the newcomer. After a brief look at the sensationalist popular fiction of Charles Mangua and Mwangi Ruheni, Smith turns to Meja Mwangi's 1974 novel of Kenya's "Emergency" period, Carcase for Hounds, and commends it for its subtly inconclusive, self-undermining quest motifs, its low-key rhetoric and its unheroic view of the Mau Mau insurgency (the title, taken from Julius Caesar, has connotations of a divisive civil war rather than a unifying anticolonial one).

Smith then focuses on the more substantial achievements of the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong'o and the Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah and argues that both are formal experimenters who explode conventions: each calls for a "participating reader" who is stimulated to perceive the questions in the subject matter and to make the required connections between narrative strategy and theme, text and title. In her close readings of individual texts, she is instructive on the complex patterns of guilt and betrayal in Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat and the collusion of family and state authoritarianisms in Farah's Dictatorship trilogy. She is, however, alert to the slippery, painstaking fair-mindedness of Farah's vision, in which the monstrous matriarch Idil is balanced by the gentle patriarch Deeriye, who demonstrates that Islam can be a source of political opposition as well as oppression. In the discussion of Maps, Farah's tortuous representation of national and ethnic identity is briefly examined, but this intricate and intriguing novel needs more attention to do it full justice, and it is a pity that no consideration is given to the ornate oral tradition of Somali poetry which informs the dense, baroque texture of Farah's prose.

The long chapter on Ngugi which forms the pivot of the book is wideranging and balanced, taking account of the fiction's glaring stylistic limitations (notably, the simplistic quasi-peasant style of Weep Not, Child) as well as its emotional power, narrative complexity and problematic polemics (in each novel an apparent resolution opens out into a new set of questions). Ngugi's complex use of oral culture in A Grain of Wheat is seen to indicate both the determining, circumscriptive role of the past in the present and the dissolution that takes place between them. The narrative perspective is shifting, relativist and fragmentary, and in the next novel, Petals of Blood, it is even more so. In this essentially nonrealistic novel of broken psyches (in which Kenya, not Karenga, is the central character), the information comes in fragments, often the wrong [End Page 980] way round, leaving the reader to "piece together a whole which no single character ever sees" and to make the required Marxist connections between mass economic, political and sexual exploitation, and between colonial and neocolonial capitalism. The judicious selection of quotations allows the power and complexity of both of these novels to shine through the critic's account. By contrast, Devil on the Cross, written in Gikuyu and available only in a lifeless English translation, remains opaque: "in reading it western readers glimpse something they cannot participate in." Appropriately, Smith concludes her book with an assessment of the importance of home and homecoming in the postcolonial writer's repossession of identity and with some timely speculations on the future of English in the light of recent publishing in indigenous languages.

Derek Wright
Northern Territory University, Darwin


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pp. 980-981
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